Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Affordable Champagne and Sparkling Wines for New Year’s

It’s time to ring in the New Year, and most likely you’ll do so with bubbles. But does it have to be Champagne? And does it have to be expensive? Not necessarily, as there are many, many other sparkling wines that offer the same dramatic effect of popping a cork and also please your palate — and won’t break the bank.

Here are a few of my favorite sparklers, all at economical price points: [Read more...]

Champagne Smackdown

Whether you’re ringing in the New Year at midnight or enjoying a New Year’s Day meal, an excellent choice for either celebration is non-vintage Champagne.

Champagne because it’s “the real thing” (don’t tell Coca-Cola), and non-vintage because it is an outstanding value. Generally speaking, a “NV” sparkler is going to be significantly less expensive than a vintage-dated Champagne, but will be comparable in quality. That’s because Champagne producers strive to create a consistent bottling with their non-vintage — for most, it is representative of the “house style”, and serves as an introduction to their more expensive vintage bubblies. Chances are, if you like the non-vintage bottling from a particular Champagne house, you’ll also enjoy their vintages.

But which to choose? Hard to say, because there are so many different styles and everyone’s palate is unique. My suggestion is to try as many as you can until you find one you really like — and then try a few more! After all, what’s bad about tasting Champagne? Luckily, many NV Champagnes come in half-bottles or “splits”, so you don’t have to shell out big bucks to buy and try several different sparklers.

To get you started, I blind-tasted three non-vintage Champagnes that are found nearly everywhere. I didn’t love all three, but that doesn’t mean you won’t — again, everyone is different. Pommery Brut Royal NV non-vintage Champange bottleHopefully you’ll get something out of my brief notes to guide you toward or away from a particular bottle. (The numbers are not rankings, but rather how they were tagged when I tasted them blind.)

#1 Pommery Brut Royal NV

Lightest in color – pale straw. Nose is toasty, with mild apple and pear. On the palate it has good mousse, very ethereal – light, mild flavor of citrus, apple and a touch of mineral. Acidity is low at first, becoming more pronounced in the finish. Finish has some mild tart green apple and is pleasant, with decent length.

Tasted alone (without food), I liked this one the best out of the three. Though the acidity began low, it increased toward the finish, which helps it with food matching. Enjoy it to ring in the New Year, as an aperitif, or with light appetizers.

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#2 Bollinger Special Cuvee NV

Champange Bollinger Special Cuvee Non-Vintage NV bottleJames Bond prefers the vintage-dated Champagnes of Bollinger, but I can’t afford them. This NV is the aged the longest among the three in this tasting — for three years.

Darkest in color, a golden straw.
Nose is more exuberant, somewhat advanced and mature. Ripe apple, pear, caramel, some toast.
Lots of foamy mousse on the palate. Good weight in the mouth. Flavor is ripe pear, a hint of lime citrus and mineral. Acidity is medium. Finishes with some bitter fruit.

By itself, I wasn’t particularly fond of this Champagne. However, it was somewhat better when matched with food — I had it with mildly sauced chicken and Chinese vegetables. This makes sense, as the acidity level lends itself to the dinner table.

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#3 Veuve Clicquot Brut NV

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Yellow Label NV Non Vintage Champagne bottleThis is the famous “yellow label” that is prevalent in nearly every wine shop.

Second darkest in color, a golden straw.
Nose has distinctive but ethereal ripe pear, hint of white peach.
Palate has good mousse. Fairly light in flavor – touch of pear. Almost reminds me of a lager beer. Acidity is medium. Finish is somewhat bitter, with a touch of lemon rind.

Not my favorite, but not terrible, either. I may want to taste this one again, as the particular bottle could have been off in some way. I expected to get more pronounced aromas and flavors.

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Bonus Tasting: Pommery Brut Royal “Apanage”

Pommery Brut Royal Apanage NV Champagne bottleThe Pommery Brut Royal mentioned above is aged for two years. Pommery also makes this “Apanage”, which is also a non-vintage but is aged for three years. I didn’t taste this one blind because I ran out of Champagne flutes (they break easily … my original set of five is down to three … oops, make that two, as another one broke after the tasting!).

Dark golden straw color. Nice foamy mousse. Mild nose of pear, butterscotch. Full flavor of ripe pear, apple, a touch of citrus and mineral. Acidity is low, getting toward medium in the finish, which is mostly tart red apple.

The Apanage is a few dollars more than the “regular” Brut Royal, but if you prefer a more complex, fuller-flavored Champagne, then it’s worth every penny. Similar to the “regular” Brut Royal in that the acidity starts out nearly nonexistent, then builds as you get toward the finish. It’s ideal as a companion to food — try it alone and with first courses.

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Sparkling Wine Review: Domaine Ste. Michelle

Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs (NV)

Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine bottleNew Year’s is coming … which means it’s time to start reviewing some celebratory sparklers.

First up is an American-made bubbly that is easy on the wallet and has universal appeal: Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs non-vintage, which retails for about ten bucks or less.

Color is a pale orange — more like cooked salmon than pink. Soft, fruity nose of citrus and a hint of raspberry. Pretty good mousse, with persistent medium-sized bubbles. In the mouth it is mostly dry, with maybe a touch of sweetness that is due more to a fun and fruity ripeness than dosage. Finishes completely dry, with a good dose of acidity, which helps with structure and food matching.

This runs about $9-12 for a bottle, and at that price it is a steal. Domaine Ste. Michelle is under the Chateau Ste. Michelle umbrella, which is one of the most respected wineries in Oregon Washington (state of).

a-7 t-7 b-7 fc-8 v-10 ~ 89 Points

Domaine Ste. Michelle website

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Sparkling Wine Review: Canella Prosecco

Canella Prosecco

Canella Prosecco sparkling wine bottleIt’s been a while since we’ve done a sparkling wine review … and I really should post more of these. After all, why wait for a celebration to open a bottle of bubbly? Shouldn’t every day be celebratory?

Yeah, yeah, I know … how many of us can afford to drink Champagne every day? Well, who says your bubbly has to be Champagne? There are plenty of inexpensive sparkling wines — imported and domestic — that have the excitement of bubbles, taste great, and won’t give you a headache.

For example, this Prosecco from Canella is a wonderfully appealing, easy drinking sparkler that will set you back only about ten to twelve bucks.

Tasting Notes: Canella Prosecco

Clean, mild nose exhibiting a touch of citrus and mineral. In the mouth, bubbles are coarse, flavor is clean with some salty mineral. There is enough acidity to match fairly well with food. Citrusy fruit, light body, easy drinking, simple and short but pleasing finish.
Try it with spicy dishes as a foil, or with fish, and with Greek cuisine (goes well with tzatziki). It’s equally enjoyable as an aperitif, palate cleanser, and with simple appetizers. A great value.

a-7 t-7 b-8 fc-8 v-9 ~ 89 Points

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Note about the above links:
even if you aren’t interested in purchasing a wine online, it’s a good idea to click on both of the above links to get a ballpark idea of what a local retailer should be charging for the wine. And you may just get lucky and find out that the wine is available right around the corner!

Champagne and Sparkling Wine for New Year’s

It’s time to ring in the New Year, and what other way than with a sparkling wine or Champagne?

Following are some of my favorite “non-vintage” or “NV” bottlings, with choices for every budget. Why non-vintage? For a few reasons, with the most prominent being consistency. Generally speaking, a Champagne house or sparkling wine producer makes their non-vintage in such a way that it tastes the same every year. Whereas a vintage-dated bottle will have a character and taste that reflects the year printed on the label, an NV — usually made from grapes and juice from several years — reflects the “house style”, and in many ways is the brand’s representative bottling. So, if you like the non-vintage bubbly from a particular brand, you’ll probably always enjoy it, from year to year, and there’s a good chance you’ll also like the vintage sparklers from the same house. Since vintage-dated sparkling wines normally cost more than the NV, you can consider the NV as an introduction, or tryout, before you shell out the big bucks for, say, a 1995 vintage Champagne from a particular house.

Enough banter, let’s get on with the suggestions. Rather than try to rank them, they’re listed by price from high to low. (By the way, clicking on the name of any of these wines will take you to the Wine-Searcher page, so you can find it at a retailer in your neighborhood).

1. Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve
($35)
Good mousse — lots of fine, tiny bubbles. Toasty nose of citrus, toasted Wonderbread, stony mineral. Good weight in the mouth — full and creamy. Nice citrus flavor — lemon peel / lime, pear, a bit of peach and vanilla, along with a touch of ginger snap and a hint of mineral. Good acidity — plenty of structure here to match with a myriad of foods. A high quality, lovely Champagne.

2. Moet White Star ($27)
The nose has open aromas of toasted Wonderbread, apple, pear, and vanilla spice. Big bubbles carry a creamy texture, decent acidity and mild white fruits: braemar apple, pear, touch of lemony citrus. Finishes pleasantly, with creamy fruit and a citrusy edge of acidity. An excellent choice as an aperitif or with just about any appetizer.

3. Pommery Brut Royal ($39)
Small to medium-sized bubbles, a somewhat closed, citrusy aroma with some toastiness and a hint of butterscotch. More toasty character comes out in the palate, which also displays mild pear and zesty lime / citrus flavors and a distinct mineral component that almost seems salty. Good dose of acidity holds things together and helps carry through to a balanced, pleasing dry finish. This Champagne tastes better as it sits in the flute and warms up a few degrees — it becomes rounder, riper, and more full-flavored.

4. Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Blue Top
($25)
Like the previous three, this is a dry style of Champagne, so if you’re into the sweeter sparklers, stay away. Otherwise, dive right in. You will be excited with anticipation the moment the wine is poured into the glass, as it will become charged with an abundance of aggressive, tiny bubbles that develop an immediate, full foam (or mousse, as the geeks call it). Clean, citrusy, slightly toasted aroma that also has a hint of mineral. In the mouth, you get very similar flavors as were on the nose, along with a touch of honey and pear, all tightly wound by a stiffly acidic wrapper. It has excellent structure, yet remains elegant and has the perception of being lighter than it really is.

5. Jaillance Clairette de Die “Cuvee Imperiale” ($15.99)
It’s French, but not Champagne — it’s sparkling wine from the Drome Valley in Provence, made from Clairette and Muscat grapes. This friendly fizzer has forward floral and ripe fruit aromas, including notes of sweet pear and muscat. The bubbles dance on your palate and deliver super-ripe flavors of bright fresh pear, granny smith apple, and hints of peach and lychee that give the impression of sweetness; however, it finishes almost completely dry and clean. A nice bonus is extremely low alcohol — about 7%, or slightly higher than beer. Fine on its own, the mild acidity offers just enough structure to match with simply prepared appetizers.

6. Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia ($14.99)
If you can’t afford good Champagne, the next best thing is a bottle of Prosecco (a sparkling wine from Italy) or Cava, which is Spain’s version of bubbly. This example from Juve y Camps has lots of fizz, good acidity, is fruity yet dry, and finishes with a nice clean aftertaste. Strong scents of pear and spice in the nose. Good fruit, good acidity and good finish. Nice mousse (bubbles/froth). Not overly dry; hint of sweetness. Elegant. A super bargain

7. Canella Prosecco di Conegliano ($12.99)
Clean, mild nose exhibiting a touch of citrus and mineral. In the mouth, bubbles are coarse, flavor is clean with some salty mineral. There is enough acidity to match fairly well with food. Try it with spicy dishes as a foil, fish, and Greek (goes well with tzatziki). Citrusy fruit, light body, easy drinking, simple and short but pleasing finish.

8. Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs ($9.99)
Color is a pale orange — more like cooked salmon than pink. Soft, fruity nose of citrus and a hint of raspberry. Pretty good mousse, with persistent medium-sized bubbles. In the mouth it is mostly dry, with maybe a touch of sweetness that is due more to a fun and fruity ripeness than dosage. Finishes completely dry, with a good dose of acidity, which helps with structure and food matching. This runs about $9-12 for a bottle, and at that price it is a steal. Domaine Ste. Michelle is one of, if not the, most respected wineries in Oregon.

9. Pommery POP
($8.99 for 187ml)
You’ve seen all the cool people on TV or in a bass-thumping techno club sipping this Champagne through a straw. So let’s see, it’s real Champagne from France, it comes in a single-serving size, and it’s OK to drink with a straw … sounds great to me! This is a good quality Champagne that tends toward the sweeter, less-dry side — though it finishes fairly dry.

10. Sofia Blanc de Blancs ($3.99 for 187ml)
OK, there may be something cooler than Pommery POP. Imagine another single-serving sparkling wine you can sip with a straw, only it comes in a can. That’s right, an aluminum can, just like Budweiser. And it only costs about four bucks, so there’s no excuse for anyone not to celebrate 2007 with bubbles. Whether you’re a snob, an anti-snob, anti-French, American jingoist, short on cash, or a beer drinker more accustomed to drinking out of a can, there’s a sparkling wine for you.

Enjoy your New Year’s celebration, and best wishes to you in 2007!

Wine Gift: Heidsieck Champagne

Heidsieck Blue Top Champagne bottleHeidsieck & Co Monopole Blue Top Premiers Crus

When you’re stumped — and pressed for time— about what to get as a gift for the wine lover in your life, the best idea is a bottle of Champagne. Champagne is the epitome of celebration, the exclamation point of a joyous occasion — and therefore a perfect gift.

However, don’t just go out and get any Champagne — get something different, special, rare, memorable. Any fool can walk in and buy a bottle of Dom Perignon … so go out of your way to choose something lesser-known yet highly regarded. A bottle you can’t find just anywhere. A bottle with a story. A bottle like Heidsieck & Co. Blue Top.

This Champagne has nothing to do with Charles Heidsieck, nor Piper-Heidsieck — Heidsieck & Monopole is a completely separate, individual Champagne house, and in fact, has been around since 1785. There’s your story: it’s not what you think it is … but it could be better. Oh, want another bit of trivia to add to the story? Just this year, a bottle of 1907 Heidsieck Monopole was sold for $4200 at the Hart Davis Hart Auction in Chicago. You got that right — forty-two-hundred, for one bottle — the most paid in 2006 for one 750ml bottle of bubbly.

There’s another way to keep this Champagne separated in your mind from the others: its appearance. This “Blue Top” sparkler comes in a striking and distinctive, Corvette-yellow bottle with — you guessed it — a blue top.

But why go to the trouble of finding this particular bottle? Aren’t there plenty of other Champagnes and sparkling wines to choose from, also with good stories? Well, there are. And many are very good. Some are better. But not all are distinctively packaged, and thus you may find yourself staring at a full shelf of lookalike bottles with unpronounceable French names, wondering which one was the bottle recommended by your favorite wine magazine or blogger. Sure, you can’t judge a wine by its bottle any more than a book by its cover, but there’s something to be said for shopping efficiency during the holiday season, and in this case, the screaming yellow bottle contains an appropriately worthwhile wine inside.

This is a dry style of Champagne, so if your gift recipient is into the sweeter sparklers, stay away. Otherwise, dive right in. You will be excited with anticipation the moment the wine is poured into the glass, as it will become charged with an abundance of aggressive, tiny bubbles that develop an immediate, full foam (or mousse, as the French call it). Take a moment to stick your nose in the glass, and you will be rewarded with a clean, citrusy, slightly toasted aroma that also has a hint of mineral. In the mouth, you get very similar flavors as were on the nose, along with a touch of honey and pear, all tightly wound by a stiffly acidic wrapper. It has excellent structure, yet remains elegant and has the perception of being lighter than it really is.

If you always drink sparkling wines alone, you might not understand the acidity — until you start popping hors d’oeuvres in your mouth. The Blue Top is wonderful for the table top, as it pairs perfectly with a variety of appetizers, can match with most fish and white meats, and will temper the heat of a hot and spicy dish. Champagne is not enjoyed with food often enough, and this bottle is as good an excuse as any to break that trend.

I originally discovered this sparkler at a Champagne tasting a few months ago, and found it to be the best of a very competitive bunch — to me it was more enjoyable than several better known, much more expensive Champagnes against which I tasted head-to-head (including two of James Bonds’ favorites). Tasting it again, alone, and with food, it’s still impressive and becoming one of my favorite sparklers.

It may be hard to find, but is well worth the search. Consider it your little secret, and as a gift for the holidays. The recipient will not be disappointed.

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